Blog, what the think.

Are Art Museums Gendered Spaces?

Museums have long been seen as the keepers of culture. They are romanticized, seen as places for learning and spiritual quests, and are considered to represent a national identity. However, museums are often not just a reflection of culture, but one of the many authorities that interpret and construct cultural narratives. These narratives are not necessarily all-encompassing or truthful. Museums are susceptible to the same cultural influences as their communities, and often present imperfect, sexist, racist, and homophobic interpretations of history. Art museums exist as a highly gendered space, and this is reflected in their architecture, included artists, and subject matter of the exhibited artwork.

Art museum exteriors have long been coded as highly masculine. This begins with who is allowed to design the museum, as men dominate the world of museum architecture. Most creators of the enormous, contemporary facades trendy with today’s museums are white men. Even in architecture firms including women partners and employees, the firm is presented as male. Because of this, the public facades of art museums are, for the most part, created by men. Additionally, because museums often use monumental scale to signify power, tradition, and status, they are perceived as masculine due to the conflation of monumental scale with masculinity.[1]

Zaha Hadid, Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, 2003

Zaha Hadid, one of the few women architects well-known in the field of museum architecture, Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, 2003

In the late 1800s the French bourgeois elites embraced the museum as a monument of their cities and of themselves. This resulted in museums becoming more monumental and much more lavish. Museum construction was directly tied to the appearance of those in power, which relates to contemporary ideas of power and monumental masculinity. One Marseille city councilor advocating for museum construction funds said, “the visitor going through the rooms, the gardens, the walks, must be able to say: This is truly the work of a great city!”[2] The elite wanted greatness, and they conflated greatness with monumental architecture referencing times of glory and past masters. Today’s standard art museum entrance still references the style developed as a result of these desires, featuring a grand entrance complete with ceremonial stairway as well as inscriptions of the names of artistic “geniuses,” always white men. Upon approaching the museum, a visitor is immediately influenced by the size and the presentation of great men in art.[3]

The interior space of museums allows the artwork to set the tone. Rooms upon rooms of white male artists makes it very clear: women and people of color do not create great art worthy of the museum. The Guerrilla Girls’ infamous 1989 poster featuring a reclining female nude wearing an aggressive-looking gorilla mask asks, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female”.[4] This leads directly into the next gendered issue of art museum collections; nearly all of the figures depicted are women.

Guerrilla Girls, Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?

Guerrilla Girls, Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?

Why are women always the ones being looked at? This question is addressed in Laura Mulvey’s influential article, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in which Mulvey argues that films are constructed with the idea of the viewer as male. Because of this, women are consistently depicted as objects for the male gaze.[5]

The male gaze has a strong presence in art museums. If all of the creators are men, and the depicted figures are women, we are more likely to identify with the creator of the work who existed and worked in the same space we now occupy as viewers. According to Carol Duncan in her article, “The MoMA’s Hot Mamas”, “The collection’s recurrent images of sexualized female bodies actively masculinize the museum as a social environment. Silently and surreptitiously, they specify the museum’s ritual of spiritual quest as a male quest.”[6] By including primarily male artists and showing mainly female nudes, art museums are placing museum visitors in the role of masculine creator and viewer. This enforces the initial reading of the museum exterior as a masculine space by showing the interior as a space for the male gaze.

Willem de Kooning, Woman I, 1950-52, oil on canvas, 6' 3 7/8" x 58"

Willem de Kooning, Woman I, 1950-52, oil on canvas, 6′ 3 7/8″ x 58″

An ideal example of how museums indicate gender roles of viewer and those being viewed is found in the placement of Willem De Kooning’s Woman I in the MoMA’s Modern Art collection. Woman I is a male-created painting of a woman. With violent and suggestive brushstrokes, this painting is seen as “vulgar, sexual, and dangerous.”[7] With references to powerlessness stemming from the mother and even vagina dentata, Woman I makes it clear that great Modern Art is born from building up and tearing down women. The act of painting, of depicting a person using your own point of view, is an act of power. Visitors learn from the work they view who has power and who does not. By placing Woman I at the entrance of the Modern Art rooms MoMA is informing the visitor that women are looked at while men are the creators and the ones who look.[8]


Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt at the Louvre, c. 1880

Edgar Degas, At the Louvre, c. 1880

Museum interiors have historically been gendered spaces. Returning to 19th century France, a painting by Edgar Degas, At the Louvre, shows artist Mary Cassatt strolling through the halls of the great museum. Unlike other portraits by Degas (notably Portrait of Henri Michel-Levy), Cassatt is not titled as a portrait. In fact, there are in indicators of Cassatt’s own identity as an artist, rather she is shown only as a bourgeois woman visitor surrounded by the works of men. According to Anthea Callen in “Privileges Sights–Sites of Privilege,” “Her setting speaks of woman as an outsider in male culture: her difference gives that culture its meaning, its authority.”[9] By showing Cassatt as a mere visitor and concealing her artist identity Degas is enforcing the museum as a gendered space. Degas does not show Cassatt as a creator because women are not considered great creators. He shows Cassatt as a bourgeois visitor because this is an acceptable role for a woman in museums at the time.[10]

Edgar Degas, Portrait of Henri Michel-Levy, 1879

Edgar Degas, Portrait of Henri Michel-Levy, 1879

Objects in museums arguably become feminized by their presence in the museum. Because the male gaze is so entrenched in the museum’s cultural history, even objects that do not depict women are seen as being in a woman’s role. To be looked at is to become feminine, to be feminized. This contributes to the gendering of museum spaces. Feminine objects being looked at, masculine spaces being the controlling forces, are typical environments for many art museums.

Museum spaces are gendered as being masculine, with the exception of the feminized paintings, sculptures, photographs, and other objects we view with the male gaze. By understanding the gendered environment artworks exist in we can better understand why there is a lack of women and artists of color in museum spaces and work to correct this misrepresentation.

[1] Fernandez-Sacco, Ellen. “Museums.” In A companion to gender studies. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2005. 484-489.

[2] Sherman, Daniel J. “The Bourgeoisie, Cultural Appropriation, and the Art Museum in Nineteenth-Century France,” chapter 17, The Reader. 136-137

[3] Sherman, Daniel J. “Art Museum in Nineteenth-Century France”. 137.

[4] “Guerrilla Girls: How Women get Maximum Art Exposure in Art Museums.” Guerrilla Girls. (accessed March 16, 2014).

[5] Mulvey, Laura. Visual pleasure and narrative cinema. 1999.

[6] Duncan, Carol. “The Art Museum as Ritual” (1995), from Donald Preziosi, ed., The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1998). 192

[7] Duncan, Carol. “The Art Museum as Ritual” 195.

[8] Duncan, Carol. “The Art Museum as Ritual” 194-200.

[9] Callen, Anthea. “Privileged Sights—Sites of Privilege: Portraits, Spectators and Gender”. 172.

[10] Callen, Anthea. “Privileged Sights—Sites of Privilege: Portraits, Spectators and Gender”. 170-175.

Leave a Reply


%d bloggers like this: